Riding Out The Storm

October 1, 1998

Nick Marinello and Judith Zwolak

It wasn't The Big One, but nobody's complaining. Tulane administrators, in fact, are impressed with Hurricane Georges' pedagogic skills, and are happy to have had a relatively gentle lesson on how to prepare the campus for a potentially catastrophic storm.

"We learned a lot," said Bill Canning, associate vice president for auxiliary services and campus recreation. "This was an incredible dress rehearsal for the real thing."

At the medical center, Georges also was more of a disaster dress rehearsal than a serious threat to Tulane's downtown campus facilities and activities, said Robert Miller, professor and chair of otolaryngology. At the time the hurricane threatened New Orleans, Miller was acting chancellor of the medical center while John LaRosa was away on business.

Canning and Miller were among a group of administrators and staff who implemented the Tulane University Emergency Plan during a 72-hour period surrounding Georges' near-miss of New Orleans late last month. According to Tony Lorino, senior vice president of operations and chief financial officer, the Tulane Emergency Preparedness Committee, which comprises representatives from uptown and downtown campuses, met twice on the Saturday before Georges made landfall in order to consider closing the university and putting the emergency plan into effect.

By 10 a.m. the next day more than 1,400 students on the uptown campus were being evacuated into four residential halls and the campus was being prepared for the 110-mph winds of Georges. Although Tulane's hospital took on extra patients from other hospitals and some nursing homes in the area, Miller said there was no shortage of clinicians since the medical center's disaster plan requires that representatives from every medical specialty report to the hospital.

Miller said the experience also demonstrated how people perceive the medical center as a safe haven during a disaster. More than 200 faculty and staff members with their immediate families spent the weekend at the medical school and the J. Bennett Johnston Building. A different rhythm "There was a rumor going around that all administrators had flown out of town," said Yvette Jones, senior vice president of institutional planning.

Not true, said Jones, who joined Canning; Lorino; President Scott Cowen; Martha Sullivan, vice president of student affairs; Al Perry, associate vice president for facilities; and a host of others in a round-the-clock vigil during Georges' painfully slow trek toward the Gulf Coast. On the uptown campus, the emergency plan was coordinated out of "command posts" in the physical plant building, University Center and the Office of Public Safety.

Other buildings directly involved in the plan were Butler, Monroe, Sharp and Rosen, the residence halls to which all students were evacuated; Bruff Commons, where meals were served; and the Reily Recreational Center, which housed the more than 400 family members of essential personnel required to report to work.

Among those who remained with the students to provide supervision during the night of the storm were Greg Boardman, assistant vice president of student affairs; Don Gatzke, dean of architecture; Hugh Lester, vice provost; Phil James, director of housing; Penny Wyatt, director of residence life; Denise Taylor, associate dean of students; and Kathy Whiteside, assistant provost.

Ken Dupaquier, director of public safety, said he stationed a campus police officer in each of the four residence halls. According to Dupaquier, all but three people of his 46-person staff were on duty during the storm, with officers positioned across campus.

"We learned a lot," said Dupaquier. "We'll do some things differently next time." One thing he'll do is put an additional person on the dispatch desk to field the sudden increase in calls. "For three days before the storm hits we will need an extra person on that desk," he said.

With the uptown campus virtually empty and gale winds sweeping in from the north, the university began to move to a different rhythm as physical plant crews began to lay sandbags in critical areas.

"We hadn't quite cleaned up from [Tropical Storm] Frances when this hit," said grounds superintendent Tom Armitage, who oversaw the shoring up of smaller trees, preparation of equipment, moving of electric generators and removal of loose objects. "Physical plant holds the institution's memory of where it floods, where we have roof problems, where the circuits go out," said Armitage.

It was a time when the unusual became commonplace. "Scott [Cowen] was remarkable," recalled Jones. "He was the man on the street; they gave him his own golf cart and he was riding around campus, wearing that blue hat and poncho." On Sunday morning Martha Sullivan set aside her administrative duties and picked up a serving spoon to dish out hash browns. "The students were lined up at 8 a.m.," she said. "We served four or five hundred people in the University Center."

Feeding the some 1,800 hunkered-down denizens of the storm was among the most challenging aspects of the emergency plan, said Canning, who oversaw the effort. "The requirement is to feed those folks three meals a day," said Canning, who added that once the plan goes into effect, the only operable dining facility on campus is Bruff Commons, where lunch and dinner were served on Sunday. Meals were bagged and delivered on Monday, during some of the worst weather.

On Tuesday, with the emergency plan still in effect, Bruff was again opened. Administrators and managers of Sodexho-Marriott, the university's food-service vendor, operated food counters and bussed tables, said Canning. According to Canning, the only problem in the emergency food service plan occurred on Sunday night, when Bruff Commons' traditional serve-yourself method of operation allowed people to take more food then they could possibly eat.

"There was tremendous waste," said Canning. "We learned that we need to be back to elementary school cafeteria line: a piece of chicken and a scoop of potatoes." Downtown, the influx of extra patients and other storm refugees also strained the food supply. "There seemed to be a number of people who had nothing to do with Tulane who adopted the hospital as a place to weather out the storm," Miller said. "That caused a problem with feeding everyone. Fortunately, one of the hospitals that sent patients also sent food."

An on-our-feet lesson Administrators also learned how to effectively communicate to the outside world during a hurricane. With the assistance of engineering student Jay Monroe, Sullivan and Jones created an emergency Web page that disseminated updated information to employees, parents and students. According to Monroe, the page received more than 1,650 "hits" over the duration of Georges.

"It was an on-our-feet lesson in communication," said Jones, who added, however, that she also would like to implement a dedicated telephone hot-line during a storm to transmit pertinent information. One of the reasons the web page was so effective was that power on the uptown campus was down only two to seven hours. The length of time varied among individual buildings due to separate feeds from Entergy, said Lorino.

According to Tim Deeves, the director of networking services who rode out the storm in Richardson Hall to monitor the rs6000 computer complex and network, power at Richardson was off from about 5 a.m. to noon on Monday. "We had people dialing into the network until the moment we lost power," he said. By Tuesday, when the storm was taking a lateral course through the panhandle of Florida, the cleanup effort began.

While Armitage and his crew were deployed across campus, Dan Nadler, assistant dean of student activities, was leading a team of about 30 students who canvassed the neighborhoods around Audubon Boulevard and Broadway to pick up limbs, rake leaves and collect refuse that had been scattered by the winds. Nadler received support from physical plant, which supplied tools as well as trucks to remove the bagged debris.

"I think the plan worked very well," said Lorino. "We had a tremendous amount of cooperation. Everybody involved stands to be commended."

Including, perhaps, the university itself, which weathered the admittedly minor assault by Georges pretty well. According to Lorino, other than several broken windows and a few missing slates from rooftops, there was very little damage to report uptown. The medical center, which can be prone to flooding during heavy rains, also sustained no major damage.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000